If you ask any real drummer worth their weight in brass who is the greatest rock percussionist of all time is, chances are every single one of them would have a different top five sticksmen. That said, we’d also bet that every single one of them would include the motorcycle-riding, gong smashing Led Zeppelin man, John Bonham.
As well as being one of the pivotal figures in one of the greatest heavy rock groups of all time, the drummer was also the archetypal rocker in every single way. It meant that he was loud, destructive, would drive motorcycles through hotel lobbies and even slam through a few shows here and there—performances which invariably included a double helping of proof to Bonham’s thunderous genius on the kit. Sadly, we’ll never see Bonham behind his illustrious set of drums again, but if you needed any further proof of his skill, then we have five isolated tracks for you.
Sadly, being the archetypal rock ‘n’ roller, it also meant that Bonham’s excesses would eventually catch up with, and he sadly passed away way before his time. Before his untimely death in 1980, Bonham was the powerhouse juggernaut of the band, driving it forward and adding a heavy dose of meat and bones to the Jimmy Page and Robert Plant’s expertly gilded dinner service. He was the engine of a runaway steam train.
In Mick Bonham’s book on his late brother titled John Bonham: The Powerhouse Behind Led Zeppelin, Plant said this about his former bandmate: “Bonzo was the main part of the band. He was the man who made whatever Page and I wrote basically work, by what he held back, by what he didn’t do to the tempos. I don’t think there’s anyone in the world who could replace him.”
With his juggernaut performances and unstoppable rock attitude, Bonham quickly became the darling of the rock world. He even had Hendrix positively purring as the legendary guitarist once told Led Zeppelin singer Robert Plant: “That drummer of yours has a right foot like a pair of castanets.” It was a style all of Bonham’s own too.
“I don’t consider that I’m particularly influenced by anyone or anything. But when I started playing, I was influenced by early soul. It was just that feel, that sound,” the drummer told his brother in an interview way back in 1973.
“When I listen to drummers I like to be able to say ‘Oh! I haven’t heard that before.’ Being yourself is so much better than sounding like anyone else. Ginger Baker’s thing is that he is himself. So it’s no good trying to do what he does. When I started playing I was most impressed by those early soul records. I like the feel and the sound they achieved. I suppose I said to myself, I’ll get that sound too.”
Below, we’ve got all the proof you need that he achieved that sound every time he sat down behind his kit, as we dig into five of the drummer’s most perfect contributions to Led Zeppelin. We’ve got five isolated drum tracks to prove John Bonham’s genius.
1969 effort ‘Heartbreaker’, which was taken from Led Zeppelin II, quickly became a favourite amongst fans which, it must be said, is down in no small part to do with Bonham’s performance on the track.
While Jimmy Page takes the plaudits on this song with his insane guitar solo—which is widely viewed as one of the finest guitar performances of all time—Bonham is back there propping up the band.
Page’s show-stealing performance does take the limelight from Bonham’s magnificence somewhat which makes the isolated version even more superb, offering a closer look at a master at work while seemingly slipping under the radar. Detailing a somewhat underappreciated and vital role on the track, the drummer somehow keeps everything together.
‘When The Levee Breaks’
‘When The Levee Breaks’ is an old bluesy number which when delivered by Led Zeppelin breathed new life into a genre that had been overdone in the swinging London scene. In 1971 Zeppelin would show the world how it should be done.
The song is one of Zeppelin’s finest moments on record thanks to some studio wizardry and, despite difficulties with reproducing the sound on stage, the track remains a fan favourite.
Zeppelin recorded the track in a stairwell to gather that muffled and echoing drum sound, Bonham is powerful and commanding on every last beat, so much so that Page and co. built the song around it. The band couldn’t recreate this same sound live to do the recording justice.
This isolated drum version of ‘When The Levee Breaks’ is the perfect encapsulation of Bonham’s masterful drumming expertise and why he’s still revered as one of the greatest people to ever step behind a drum kit of all time.
‘Whole Lotta Love’
On the band’s standout song, ‘Whole Lotta Love’, we find the intelligence that propels Bonham’s engine. One of the band’s best tracks simply because of the synergy they possess. The song is equal parts brilliant as Robert Plant’s vocal soars, Page’s guitar rears its head like a snorting stallion and John Paul Jones provides a chugging rhythm. All while Bonham adds his unique power to the song.
While it may not be written up as one of John ‘Bonzo’ Bonham’s best songs for the band, it does see him perform his role with aplomb. He will go down in the rock and roll history books as easily one of the best. The world may never have got to witness the sheer power and precision of his percussion, a perfect example of which is on this clip.
‘Fool in the Rain’
The track is a slightly sore point for some fans of the legendary rock band is it came about just before the band’s split, an aching reminder of how bloody brilliant they were and what could have been.
‘Fool in the Rain’ is the third song on Led Zeppelin’s 1979 album In Through the Out Door. It was the last single released in the US before they formally disbanded in 1980. The song reached number 21 on the Billboard Hot 100 in February 1980.
On ‘Fool In The Rain’ Bonham is at his undeniable best. Sharp and meticulous in his timing, he matches every metronomic note with the rugged and robust play that carved him out as an icon. Bonham was adept at adding his own signature with every hit without overshadowing the thrust of the song.
The vision for ‘Ramble On’ was one of fantasy from Robert Plant, who had become inspired by the work of J.R.R. Tolkein and makes reference with the lyrics “the darkest depths of Mordor” and “Gollum and the evil one”. It’s a section of lyrics that Plant later confessed to being embarrassed about.
One of Zeppelin’s more obviously joyous songs, the upbeat tone of the cut is perfectly complimented by Page’s silky solo which saunters in around the one minute 47-second mark.
Another effervescent pulse to this track comes from Bonzo. the drummer isn’t over-indulgent or too committed, he is cultured and cultivated, smashing through the skins with a heavy degree of sophistication.